Does anyone know why allegedly blood built the House of Shaws?

My dim memories of watching Kidnapped (1960) and reading the novel long ago include someone warning David Balfour that the House of Shaws is accursed, using the word blood.

Yesterday, Nov. 8, 2023, I read part of the Project Gutenberg online edition of Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson.

In Chapter II, a woman says the words I dimly remembered:

The woman’s face lit up with a malignant anger. “That is the house of Shaws!” she cried. “Blood built it; blood stopped the building of it; blood shall bring it down. See here!” she cried again—“I spit upon the ground, and crack my thumb at it! Black be its fall! If ye see the laird, tell him what ye hear; tell him this makes the twelve hunner and nineteen time that Jennet Clouston has called down the curse on him and his house, byre and stable, man, guest, and master, wife, miss, or bairn—black, black be their fall!”

So “Blood built it; blood stopped the building of it; blood shall bring it down".

Given Janet Clouston's hatred of Ebenezer Balfour and of the House of Shaws, it is understandable that she predicts doom for it. "The wish is the father to the thought", so she believed "...blood shall bring it down".

It is easy to explain her claim that "blood stopped the building of it". In chapter III Ebenezer Balfour tells David about the Balfour family.

And then on he rambled about the family, and its ancient greatness, and his father that began to enlarge the house, and himself that stopped the building as a sinful waste; and this put it in my head to give him Jennet Clouston’s message.

So David's grandfather, Ebenezer's father, started greatly enlarging the House of Shaws into a great mansion, and when or after Ebenezer became the laird he stopped the building process.

Later, in Chapter VI the landlord of a local inn tells David the rumor about Ebenezer which has ruined Ebenezer's local reputation.

“And what was it?” I asked.

“Ou, just that he had killed him,” said the landlord. “Did ye never hear that?”

“And what would he kill him for?” said I.

“And what for, but just to get the place,” said he.

“The place?” said I. “The Shaws?”

“Nae other place that I ken,” said he.

“Ay, man?” said I. “Is that so? Was my—was Alexander the eldest son?”

“‘Deed was he,” said the landlord. “What else would he have killed him for?”

And in chapter XXVIII Mr. Rankeiller tells how Alexander secretly disappeared, thus letting Ebenezer become heir to the Shaws, and people who didn't know the whole story believed Ebenezer had secretly murdered Alexander to inherit, and so shunned him.

But what about the first part of the sentence:

“Blood built it;...

Maybe an earlier laid of Shaws had died or disappeared mysteriously, making David's grandfather the new laird, and people believed that David's grandfather murdered to inherit the property.

Maybe David's grandfather and/or earlier ancestors had gained great wealth though violence. Maybe David's grandfather had fought on the winning side in 1715 or 1689. Maybe David's grandfather had denounced Jacobite conspirators who were executed. And maybe David's grandfather was rewarded with being granted the confiscated estates of executed Jacobites.

Maybe when neighbors went broke in the Darien scheme of 1698-1700 or when the South Sea Bubble burst in 1720, and David's grandfather bought their property at prices too low to be considered neighborly, some of them committed suicide in despair, and people blamed the low prices he paid for those suicides.

Maybe David's grandfather invested a lot in privateer voyages during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1701-1713 and made a great fortune that way.

Maybe, like the First Duke of Chandos, he had a government job handling money for the war effort and was suspected of embezzling vast amounts of it.

Anyway, I wonder if anyone knows the reason why it was believed that blood built the House of Shaws.

1 Answer 1


Stevenson himself wrote that historical accuracy was not his prime aim in writing the novel and there is no actual historical house of Shaw to point to specific instances of blood being shed to build the house. Members of the Shaw clan were associated with the Jacobite uprisings of 1745, but this was too late for any association with the fictional house as the book takes place in the 1750s with the house having been built several generations earlier.

Historically however one thing is clear; the Shaw clan is a highland clan, while the House of Shaws is located in the lowlands near Edinburgh. This lines up with a historic trend of highland lords establishing lowland estates in that time period. This resulted from James I in the early 1600s requiring highland heirs to be educated in the lowlands. These heirs often then chose to live in the more politically connected lowlands and would establish estates in the surrounding areas, while maintaining leadership and ties to their clans in the highland clan territories. These lowland estates were often financed by the clan leaders who received titles to lands, cash payments, or other benefits in exchange for aligning with one side or another in one of the several civil and religious wars of the time period. These wars resulted in many bloody conflicts across the highlands for over a century. So in effect most of these estates were in one way or another paid for in the blood of the highlanders.

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